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The late, great Stevie Ray Vaughn said of Antone's, "The best music I've ever heard was at Antone's, and some of the best music I've ever played was there."

Mention the blues to anyone who knows anything about them (musically) and the name Clifford Antone will surely arise. Armed with a passion for that genre, he created the legendary Austin nightclub in 1975 and featured performers like Clifton Chenier, Sunnyland Slim, B.B. King, Fats Domino, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, just to name a few.

Clifford's first house band was The Fabulous Thunderbirds who had a multi-platinum album in 1985, Tuff Enuff, and started those magical Monday nights. During those days, the joint was jumping, but when Clifford moved Antone's to a north location a few years later to accommodate the club's growing popularity, suddenly that popularity waned. The venue could still hold such acts as Asleep at the Wheel, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Ray Charles; nevertheless, 6th Street's burgeoning club scene tempted the crowds to stay downtown. Antone's doors closed in the late 70s sending the Blue Monday crowd to The Rome Inn where Clifford's influence reigned and party night peaked.

In the early 80's, The Rome Inn closed, and Antone's reopened closer to its original home reviving the Monday night blues party tradition and packing the club with the best of the blues musicians and the eager fans that followed.

Recalls Derek O'Brien, a Blue Monday House Band regular guitarist for almost all of Antone's 25 years, "George Rains on drums, Sarah Brown on bass, Denny Freeman on guitar, Mel Brown on organ, me - and usually Kim Wilson. Larry Fulcher, Charlie Sexton, Ian Moore, Mike Buck, Kaz Kazanoff, Jon Blondell, Angela Strehli, Frosty, and dozens of others have played off and on throughout the years. Kim and Stevie especially just loved to play and would play all night. The music held everyone together... because it sure wasn't the money."

While the musicians are important, Derek O'Brien wants one thing made clear: "There's no way to really discuss the Monday night blues party without bringing Clifford Antone into the picture. He always gave younger players the chance to play with the authentic bluesmen, and that's the greatest gift."

Legend has it that Clifford holds an innate sense of when an unknown talent is ready to play with the pros, so he's the one to give them their big break. For instance, it was Clifford who suggested to Albert King that he should give Stevie Ray a chance to play guitar with him on stage, thus helping to make history.

Countless other historical moments have followed, some of whose recordings we can hear on Antone's Records started in 1987. Clifford wanted a record label "specializing in blues and root music to make available to the world the performances recorded at the nightclub."

Thus it isn't any wonder that Clifford Antone is the recipient of The National Blues Foundation "Lifetime Achievement Award" for his contributions to the genre or that USA Today labeled Antone's as "the nation's best blues club."

Unfortunately, Antone's is now managed by Brad First while Clifford serves out a federal sentence for racketeering and one count of conspiracy to distribute marijuana. When asked about these matters, Clifford responds, "Ask me about music - nothing else matters."

One thing is for sure though: Clifford's presence in the club is missed…and so is Stevie Ray Vaughn's.

Antone's jail sentence, Stevie's death, and Jimmie Vaughn's departure from The Fabulous Thunderbirds have basically ended the golden era for Antone's, but the legends created at that club are still very much alive. If not in tangible form, then certainly in the souls of those who heard the music, for there are moments in our history when greatness clusters and forms a star, and we hold those moments close because, like those of the astronomical kind, we know that all stars must eventually and unfortunately burn themselves right out.

April 2001

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